Chiliasm didn’t spring de novo from the early Christian church. Its appearance had roots beyond the Island of Patmos. In fact, the most fruitful place to look for the background of Christian chiliasm is obviously going to be Jewish writings. Even before the Christian era, the Jews made some use of the Greek Sibylline Oracles,1 which they mediated to the Christians; and other ancient writings may also have played a role in the development of Christian chiliasm.2
But even where other pagan sources played a role in Christian chiliasm, it is likely that they came to the church via older Jewish mediation. The richest source for Christian chiliasm, however, were the Old Testament apocalypses and other eschatological passages, which had blossomed into a vivid bouquet of Jewish apocalypticism by the time the Christian church came on the scene with its own apocalyptic message.ָ
Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, etc.
The first place to look is at Jewish intertestamental literature, as well as at material contemporary with the chiliastic writings of the early church. R. H. Charles gives this sketch of millennia concepts in the intertestamental writings (Charles 1920, 479–80):
- Eternal duration on the present earth (1 Enoch 6–36; 2 Macc); eternal duration on the present earth with New Jerusalem as its center (1 En. 83–90)
- Temporary duration on the present earth (1 Enoch 91–104; Psalms of Solomon; Sibylline Oracles 3; Jubilees; Assumption of Moses); 1,000 years duration = millennium (2 Enoch; 2 Baruch); 400 years duration (4 Ezra)
- Eternal duration in a new heaven and a new earth (1 Enoch 37–71)
- Idea of millennium abandoned (2 Baruch; 4 Ezra)
The Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra (first century AD) spoke of a superhuman deliverer who was incontestably a man, a warrior-king with miraculous powers. In Esdras, the Messiah was the Lion of Judah, at whose roar the last of the four beasts, the Roman eagle, would be consumed in flames along with the heathen. The ten lost tribes of Israel would return from the Diaspora to reestablish themselves in a flourishing Palestine.
But this would only happen after a time of terrible hardship and injustice (i.e., under the Romans). Just when an evil world had reached its nadir, the Messiah would appear, taking the Roman leader away in chains to Mount Zion. This would inaugurate an age of blissful freedom from sickness, violence, and untimely death; and the earth would become extremely fruitful.
The messianic interval was not a necessary feature of all appearance. Neither Isaiah 24–27 (the mini-apocalypse), Daniel, the Assumption of Moses, nor the Apocalypse of Abraham has the messianic interval. An interim period without the Messiah is presented in the source of 1 Enoch 91:12–17; 93, known as the “Apocalypse of Weeks.” It divides past history into seven “weeks” of Jewish salvation history. Then three more “weeks” will follow: an eighth of righteousness, a ninth in which the world is to be marked for destruction, and a tenth in which the angels will be judged:
12Then after that there shall occur the second eighth week (sabbath)—the week (sabbath) of righteousness. A sword shall be given to it (or him) in order that judgment shall be executed in righteousness on the oppressors, and sinners shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous. 13At its completion, they shall acquire many great things through their righteousness. A house shall be built for the Great King in glory for evermore. 14Then after that in the ninth week (sabbath) the righteous judgment shall be revealed in the whole world. All the deeds of the sinners shall depart from upon the whole earth, and be written off for eternal destruction; and all people shall direct their sight to the path of righteousness. 15Then, after this matter, on the tenth week in the seventh part, there shall be the eternal judgment; and it shall be executed by the angels of the eternal heaven—the great (judgment) which emanates from all of the angels. 16The first heaven shall depart and pass away; a new heaven shall appear; and all the powers of heaven shall sine forever sevenfold. 17Then after that there shall be many weeks without number forever; it shall be (a time) of goodness and righteousness, and sin shall no more be heard of forever. (1 Enoch 91:12–17)
First Enoch also reports a “heavenly vision, that which I have learned from the words of the holy angels, and understood from the heavenly tablets” (1 Enoch 93:2). In it, he outlines a series of weeks: the first few depict a Judaized “salvation history” from start through end.3
3He then began to recount from the books and said, I was born the seventh during the first week, during which time judgment and righteousness continued to endure. 4After me there shall arise in the second week great and evil things; deceit should grow, and therein the first consummation will take place. But therein (also) a (certain) man shall be saved. After it is ended, injustice shall become greater, and he shall make a law for the sinners. 5Then after that at the completion of the third week a (certain) man shall be elected as the plant of righteous judgment, and after him one (other) shall emerge as the eternal plant of righteousness. 6After that at the completion of the fourth week visions of the old and righteous ones shall be seen; and a law shall be made with a fence, for all the generations. 7After that in the fifth week, at the completion of glory, a house and a kingdom shall be built. 8After that in the completion of the sixth week those who happen to be in it shall all of them be blindfolded, and the hearts of all shall forget wisdom. Therein, a (certain) man shall ascend. And, at its completion, the house of the kingdom shall be burnt with fire; and therein the whole clan of the chosen root shall be dispersed. 9After that in the seventh week an apostate generation shall arise; its deeds shall be many, and all of them criminal. 10At its completion, there shall be elected ones of righteousness from the eternal plant of righteousness, to whom shall be given sevenfold instruction concerning all his flock. (1 Enoch 93:3–10)
Although there is no Messiah in this scheme, one could readily be added without disturbing the outline much. The late first-century AD book of 2 Enoch has a similar scheme: seven weeks of which the seventh is a millennia day of rest, followed by an eternal eighth day (2 Enoch 32:3–33:1). Here too a Messiah could easily be added.
The closest Hebrew parallel to the eschatology of Revelation is the Neo-Hebraic Apocalypse of Elijah (ca. 261, but based on earlier sources).4
An anti-Messiah is to wage a series of devastating wars; then the Messiah will appear with angels to destroy the nations. With this evil age ended, the Messiah is to rule in Jerusalem for forty years of plenty. At its close, God will raise up God and Magog against Jerusalem; but they will be destroyed. A resurrection and judgment follow, with the wicked going down to a fiery pit and the righteous dwelling in a new Eden and a heavenly Jerusalem come down to earth.
36On that day, the Christ, the king, and all his saints will come forth from heaven. 37He will burn the earth. He will spend a thousand years upon it. 38Because the sinners prevailed over it, he will create a new heaven and a new earth. No deadly devil will exist in them. 39He will rule with his saints, ascending and descending, while they are always with the angels and they are with Christ for a thousand years. (Apocalypse of Elijah 5:36–39)
Although the early second-century AD passage of 2 Baruch 39–40 is not unquestionably apocalyptic, there is a messianic kingdom when “the dominion of my Anointed One which is like the fountain and the vine, will be revealed” (2 Baruch 9:8). It “will last forever until the world of corruption has ended” (2 Baruch 40:3), and it follows the destruction of four world kingdoms, the latest of which is Rome. In 2 Baruch 29, the consummation time is one when the “Anointed One will begin to be revealed” and the earth will become extremely fruitful.
5The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousandfold, and on one vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster shall produce a thousand grapes, and each grape shall produce a cor of wine. 6And those who have hungered shall rejoice; moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day. 7For winds shall go forth from before Me to bring every morning the fragrance of aromatic fruits, and at the close of the day clouds distilling the dew of health. 8And it shall come to pass at that self-same time that the treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they shall eat of it in those years, because these are they who have come to the consummation of time. (2 Baruch 29:5–8)
Another close Jewish parallel is 2 Esdras 5:2–7:44. This a Jewish apocalypse that is roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. First the evil day will be closed by God himself; then the Messiah will appear and reign 400 years with those who have gone to heaven without tasting death (Enoch, Elijah, possibly others too). A couple of passages from the sixth and seventh chapters give the flavor:
Whoever is left after all that I have foretold, he shall be preserved, and shall see the deliverance that I bring and the end of this world of mine. They shall all see the men who were taken up into heaven without ever knowing death. Then shall men on earth feel a change of heart and come to a better mind. Wickedness shall be blotted out and deceit destroyed, but fidelity shall flourish, corruption be overcome, and truth, so long unfruitful, be brought to light. (1 Esdras 6:25–28)
My son the Messiah shall appear with his companions and bring four hundred years of happiness to all who survive. At the end of that time, my son the Messiah shall die, and so shall all mankind who draw breath. Then the world shall return to its original silence for seven days as at the beginning of creation, and no one shall be left alive. After seven days the age which is not yet awake shall be roused and the age which is corruptible shall die…. There shall be only the radiant glory of the Most High, by which all men will see everything that lies before them. It shall last as it were for a week of years. Such is the order that I have appointed for judgment. (2 Esdras 7:28–31, 43–44)
After that period, the Messiah will die along with all other humanity. A general resurrection and judgment will follow.
Dead Sea Scrolls
The Qumran community saw themselves as the eschatological people who would participate in the fulfillment of the prophetic message of salvation for the righteous.5 Their commentary on Nahum says the sons of light from their ranks, swollen by reconversion of some of the “Simple of Ephraim” (4QpNah 4:4–5, פתאי אפרים) and other Jewish recruits (1QSam 1:1–5), The Messianic Rule), would go forth to battle the sons of darkness. In a period of six years they would attack the “army of Satan” symbolized by the “ungodly of the Covenant” and battle the Kittim; then they would move on to Jerusalem. The seventh year would see a restoration of Temple worship. In the end their victory would be complete, even having a cosmic quality.
This is the Rule for all the congregation of Israel in the last days, when they shall join [the Community to wa]lk according to the law of the sons of Zadok the Priests and of the men of their Covenant who have turned aside [from the] way of the people, the men of His Council who keep His Covenant in the midst of iniquity, offering expiation [for the Land]. (1QSam 1:1–5)
When the glory of Judah shall arise, the simple of Ephraim shall flee from their assembly; they shall abandon those who led them astray and shall join Israel. (4QpNah 4:4–5)
The messianic times, however, are complex—even confused. On the one hand, the “Prince of the Congregation” is the commander-in-chief, but the War Rule leaves little room for him to act as royal Messiah. On the other hand the Damascus Rule envisions two or even three messianic figures.6 Some fragments from Cave 1 refer to a lay King-Messiah = the “Branch of David”, “Prince of the Congregation” who would defeat the kings of the nations.
The Master shall bless the Prince of the Congregation… and shall renew for him the Covenant of the Community that he may establish the kingdom of His people for ever, [that he may judge the poor with righteousness and] dispense justice with [equity to the oppressed] of the land, and that he may walk perfectly before Him in all the ways [of truth], and that he may establish His holy Covenant at the time of the affliction of those who seek God…. [May you smite the peoples] with the might of your hand and ravage the earth with your scepter; may you bring death to the ungodly with the breath of your lips! (1QSb 521, 25, 28)
He would be proceeded by a Priest-Messiah = “Messiah of Aaron”, the “Priest”, or the “Interpreter of the Law.” The Rule of the Community says “the Prophet” was expected to arrive around the same time as the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel (1QS 9:11). In the context of intertestamental Jewish ideas, it seems this prophet was to be either Elijah preparing the messianic way (Mal 4:5; 1 En. 90:31, 37; Matt 11:13; 17:12), or a divine guide for Israel’s final days (1 Macc 4:46; 14:41; John 1:21). He was no doubt identical with the prophet promised by God to Moses (Deut 18:15–18; cf. Acts 3:22–23; 7:37). Since he was to teach the people, his part was the same as that attributed to the “Teacher of Righteousness”; hence, the Qumran community were probably no longer looking for the coming prophet, since they believed he had appeared in the person of their Teacher of Righteousness. “They [i.e., men of holiness] shall be ruled by the primitive precepts in which the men of the Community were first instructed until there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (1QS 9:11).
The Qumran commentary on Isaiah says as King-Messiah would defer to him and to priestly authority in general in all legal matters: “As they teach him, so shall he judge” (4QpIsa 8:1–10:23). The Damascus Document says the “Messiah of Aaron” was to be the final Teacher (CD 6:11, יורה הצדק באחרית הימים). The War Scroll says he was also to preside over the battle liturgy (1QM 15:4; 16:13; 18:5), and the Rule of the Community says he would also preside over the eschatological banquet:
This shall be the assembly of the men of renown [called] to the meeting of the Council of the Community when [the Priest-]Messiah shall summon them.
He shall come [at] the head of the congregation of Israel with all [his brethren, the sons] of Aaron the Priests, [those called] to the assembly, the men of renown; and they shall sit [before him, each man] in the order of his dignity. And then [the Mess]iah of Israel shall [come], and the chiefs of the [clans of Israel] shall sit before him,….
And [when] they shall gather for the common [tab]le, to eat and [to drink] new wine,… let no man extend his hand over the first-fruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for [it is he] who shall bless the first-fruits of bread and wine, and shall be the first [to extend] his hand over the bread. Thereafter the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread, [and] all the Congregation of the Community [shall utter a] blessing, [each man in the order] of his dignity. (1QS 2:12–21)
The “new Jerusalem” of various manuscripts7 doesn’t match the definition of the Holy City descending from above of 1 Enoch 90:28–29 or Rev 21:3ff.; however, it could be an earthly city rebuilt according to the plans of angelic architects (cf. the Temple Scroll).[And the] mid[dle street passing through the mid]le of the city, its [width measure] thirt[een] ree[ds] and one cubit = 92 cubits. And all t[he streets of the city] are paved with white stone… marble and jasper. (DSSE 263 1:5–7)8
- Beasley-Murray, George R. “The Two Messiahs in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.” Journal of Theological Studies 48 (1947): 1–12.
- Case, Shirley Jackson. The Millennial Hope: A Phase of War-Time Thinking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918.
- Charles, R. H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John. 2 volumes. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920.
- Isaac, E. “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch: A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J. H. Charlesworth, 1:50–90. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983.
- Garcı́a Martinez, Florentino, and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar. The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Transcriptions and Translations). New York: Brill, 1997–1998.
- Rist, Martin. “Millennium.” In Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. 4 vols., edited by George A. Buttrick, 3.381–82. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1962.
- Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. 4th ed. London: Penguin, 1998.
- ———. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective. Second ed. In collaboration with Pamela Vermes. London: SCM, 1982.
- Wintermute, O. S. “Apocalypse of Elijah: A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J. H. Charlesworth, 1:721–54. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983.
- I’ll speak of the Sibylline Oracles in a subsequent blog on “Aftermath.”
- For a discussion by an exponent of the significance of non-Jewish sources, see (Case 1918, 8–9).
- E. Isaac thinks 1 Enoch comes from the second century BC to the first century AD (Isaac 1983, 5).
- Wintermute speaks of this as a Jewish book with later Christian additions similar to the book of Revelation (Wintermute 1983, 721). However, Rist says: “This work is thoroughly Jewish throughout, showing no dependence upon Revelation despite close similarities. Quite likely the authors of both (as well as Lactantius in his Div Inst., 3) have followed a common apocalyptic tradition. The basic pattern is the same; the differences (such as the forty-year duration of the kingdom) are minor” (Rist 1962, 3.381).
- For the most direct access to the theology and texts of the Qumran community, check two small volumes by Vermes (Vermes 1982; Vermes 1998; or Martinez and Tigchelaar 1997–1998).
- On the idea of two Messiahs in Jewish literature, see Beasley-Murray 194).
- Fragments of visionary Aramaic writing reflecting on Ezek 40–48 have been found (1Q32, 2Q24; 5Q15; 11QJar).
- See Vermes’s reconstruction, where there are other notes on this passage (Vermes 1982, 72; or 4Q554–5, 5Q15 in Vermes 1998, 324–25).